The tried-and-true-and-tried-again Disney formula returns for the company's 56th animated feature, the Polynesian-set musical "Moana." The brand is essentially locked into narratives of princesses going on heroine's journeys of adventure and self-discovery. As one character tells the titular 16-year-old island girl, "If you wear a dress, and you have an animal sidekick, you're a princess."
Technically, Moana (Auli'I Cravalho) is a "curly-haired non-princess," the daughter of the chief of Motunui Island. And you'll never guess, but she dreams of escaping, into the wild blue yonder of the Pacific Ocean (animated to be hands-on helpful or, rather, waves on). "No one goes beyond the reef!" bellows Moana's father (Temuera Morrison), but soon she's off on a mission to clarify cultural and personal identity. As explained by her sage Gramma (Rachel House), Moana will need the help of mischevious demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson), who's covered in tattoos that magically move, to reinstall the Heart of Te Fiti.
"Moana" comes out of the gate like gangbusters by establishing island life in Moana's childhood, when the ocean "chooses" her. The first song ("Where You Are") lays out the competing (family) values of Dad and Gramma, the latter encouraging the girl to follow her destiny (expressed in the "I Want" song "How Far I'll Go") to be one with the ocean and save her people in spite of the risks that terrify her father. We also meet that animal sidekick (happily not anthropomorphized into a wisecracker): a cosmically dumb chicken named Hei Hei.
Unfortunately, "Moana" requires a seafaring narrative that dampens the fun in a saggy midsection. After the agreeably "Hakuna Matata"-ish "You're Welcome" introduces a smugly self-satisfied Maui ("Also I harnessed the breeze/You're welcome!/To fill your sails and shake your trees"), "Moana" cedes its high-spirited musical sensibility -- animated in CGI that at last has evolved to wed the best of hand-drawn character sensitivity to gorgeous near-photo-real landscapes -- to an action-centrism that's the film's weakest element.
If the tunes aren't quite as endearingly catchy as those of the Mouse House's late '80s, early '90s resurgence, they have the benefit of being trendy, especially with much-lauded "Hamilton" powerhouse Lin-Manuel Miranda co-writing the film's songs (with Opetaia Foa'i and Mark Mancina). Plus, "Moana" continues the corrective girl-power direction of recent years with its bold heroine, a teen strong enough to keep a loose-cannon demigod in line.
The film's two teams of directors ("The Little Mermaid"'s John Musker & Ron Clements, and co-directors Don Hall and Chris Williams) deserve "A for effort" credit for pushing Disney away from both Anglo-Saxon folklore and Anglicized facial features and body types. The animation proves consistently beautiful, and the comedy sophisticated enough to grab adults while accessible enough to have kids squealing with joy at each joke. When it's cooking, "Moana" prepares tender, slip-off-the-bone meat on the tried-and-true bones of the Disney formula.
Though it's chock full of marketable, playset-ready trappings, "Moana" happily pursues more than one simple theme. It's a fable of nature disturbed and restored to harmony, but also about the individual connecting to a philosophy of living and a culture that has forgotten its identity finding its way home (offering hope for our destabilized land of opportunity). Moana plainly states the film's central metaphor, "We have to restore the Heart!"